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Visas and Travel: One Step Forward, Two to Go

by Edward Alden
April 17, 2012

President Obama speaking in front of Cinderella's Castle at Disney World's Magic Kingdom on January 19, 2012 (Kevin Lamarque/Courtesy Reuters). President Obama speaking in front of Cinderella's Castle at Disney World's Magic Kingdom on January 19, 2012 (Kevin Lamarque/Courtesy Reuters).

Large, bureaucracies are notoriously difficult to move, but when they do it can sometimes happen with extraordinary speed. Consider what has happened on U.S. visa processing over the past six months or so.

In the decade since 9/11, long wait times for visa interviews have been a chronic problem, eliciting complaints from business, the tourist industry, universities, and others. The State Department has periodically thrown additional resources at the problem in one country or another, but the fixes rarely lasted for long.

Then in January, 2012, President Obama went to Disneyworld, in the tourist dependent and electorally important state of Florida, and announced the goal of increasing the number of visas processed for Chinese and Brazilians by 40 percent this year. Since that speech, the waiting time for visa applicants has plummeted in both countries. In Brazil, the wait times in Recife for visitors visas have fallen from seventy-five days to seven; in Rio de Janeiro, it’s down from thirty-six days to two. Even in Sao Paulo, where the wait time remains thirty-five days, that’s less than half what it was in January. And in the major posts in China, visa wait times are no longer a significant obstacle to visiting the United States. In both countries, the number of visas being processed is already 40-60 percent higher than a year ago. The big winner will be the U.S. economy.

The progress did not begin with President Obama’s speech. The State Department, led by Deputy Secretary Tom Nides, has made visa processing a priority, and the recent gains are a result of ongoing investments in increased staff and improved procedures. It is too early to say whether the progress will continue, but it certainly shows that big gains are possible when serious commitments are made at high levels in the government.

Which is all the more reason that the Obama administration should seize the opportunity on two other fronts. The first is the ludicrously long processing times for what is euphemistically known as “administrative processing.” These are the tediously slow security background checks still conducted on hundreds of thousands of visa applicants each year. As the New York Times detailed last week, the background checks are so prevalent and so arbitrary that many foreign artists and performers are simply giving up on the United States, because they have no way of knowing if they will be granted a visa in time to make a scheduled show. The number of visas issued to foreign performers has fallen 25 percent in the past four years, according to the article.

As I wrote earlier this year with immigration attorney Liam Schwartz, the U.S. government already has the capability to move forward with a security screening system that would be far more efficient and would in no way compromise security. Yet unlike the visa wait times issue, this one has never made it out of the mid levels of the bureaucracy. Without a clear message from very senior levels, bureaucratic caution will always trump sensible reform.

The second is expanding visa-free travel to the United States. As I laid out in an article in Foreign Affairs last week, entitled “If You Extend the Visa Waiver Program, They Will Come,” the United States has the capability to ease travel to the United States and enhance security at the same time. This is one of those genuinely rare “win-wins,” and there are no good reasons to delay expanding the program. It was positive, therefore, to see the commitment made last week by President Obama and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff to begin work on bringing Brazil into the Visa Waiver Program.

Delays in visa processing have done much over the past decade to harm the U.S. economy and to damage the U.S. image as an open, welcoming country. The recent progress is encouraging, but there is still much to be done.

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